Review: Strictly Come Dancing Live, Birmingham Utilita Arena

Published in The Telegraph on January 20, 2024

After a particularly fine 20th season – with a blisteringly high standard of dancing that drew almost 10 million viewers for the final – Strictly heads out on the road, with many of the season’s most impressive talents signed up. And Krishnan Guru-Murthy is there too.

Of course, Strictly has always been as much about celebrating pluck and enthusiasm as sheer technical talent. And it is the game willingness of the likes of Guru-Murthy who really make Strictly special – even if Craig Revel Horwood’s comment here that he looks like “last man standing at the wedding”, after witnessing his gyrations to Boom Shak-a-Lak, is wincingly accurate.

But for all Horwood amps up his boo-hiss villainy – it is still panto season, after all – this is a hefty dose of thoroughly feelgood entertainment. If you could harness the warmth of feeling that pumps through the audience for Guru-Murthy, for confirmed national treasure Angela Rippon, or for the young break-out stars Bobby Brazier and Ellie Leach, you could probably power the national grid for the rest of 2024.

Seven couples get the chance to dance two of their favourite routines over again – and, yes, we are once more treated to the “leg extension that broke the internet”, with Rippon raising the roof by lifting that enviably svelte leg skywards in her knowing cha-cha. “When I first saw it I thought it the leg was false, darling,” drawls Horwood. And sure, Rippon fluffs the rest of the routine, but with pins like these, who’s noticing?

The series champion, Leach, was the youngest ever winner at just 22, and watching her progress sometimes felt like watching someone growing into herself on screen. Hard-working and infectiously cheerful, with sparkly chemistry with her dance partner Vito and a natural flare for shimmying that seemed to take even her by surprise, it was impossible not to root for Leach. Here, they make dancing an American smooth in vast arena look completely effortless.

Equally at home are Layton Williams and Nikita Kuzmin, who make great use of the expanded space, flying across the dancefloor in a crisp quickstep to Putting on the Ritz. And Angela Scanlon and Carlos Gu produce the most spellbinding routine of the show, revisiting an Argentine tango that is poised, sharp, and seriously sexy – a perhaps unexpected stand-out, that prompts waves of foot-stamping applause.

Still, the stakes of the live show couldn’t really be lower: each performance, the couples compete for a trophy, decided by audience vote, with the judges’ scores mere guidance. If you don’t win this show, another will be along within a few hours. And only two performances in, the repetition and pointlessness of the charade already seems to have sent Anton du Beke doolally; he burbles such unfiltered and flirtatious nonsense, that Horwood is soon making jokes about his meds having kicked in.

In Birmingham, it is Brazier and partner Dianne Buswell who win the public vote – hardly a shock, with Brazier turning out two unbelievably winning, youthfully exuberant performances. Do you want to see Bobby’s hips, the crowd is asked at one point, and the ensuing roar makes it clear that they really, really do. And those hips don’t lie: Leach may have won the TV series, but a star has surely been born in Brazier, too.

Throw in a Barbie-themed group dance and a judge’s number where Horwood breaks any previously imagined ceiling for campness by voguing to Kylie’s Padam Padam, and the live show feels like a neat encapsulation of 2023 for anyone not quite ready to let go – and a gorgeous victory lap for a particularly creamy crop of contestants.

Where next?